Yesterday evening was steampunk night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. The Gatsby costume thing first reared its head among fans of the first wave of oldtimey bands around the turn of the century. Since then, it seems to have moved into the circus rock and cabaret territory formerly occupied by the goths. Except that you can buy eyeliner and black Lee nails at the dollar store. To look like Jay Gatsby (or Daisy – a lot of girls like to play dressup too), you pretty much need to be him. That crowd was up front, vocal and showing endless love for the bands. Behind them was a typical New York horde that had Amanda Palmer, who is New York to the core, completely flummoxed. More on that later.
Stunningly eclectic circus rock band Rosin Coven (as in group of witches who need that stuff for their bows) opened and were the musical highlight of the night. They are not the ideal of choice of band you want to open for you because they will upstage you and they did that to Palmer. But it was a brave and aptly cross-pollinational move for her: they host an annual Edwardian Ball, dedicated to Edward Gorey, in their native San Francisco, where they can return the favor. Although their songs are very theatrical, the eight-piece group let the drama in the music speak for itself. Frontwoman Carrie Katz joined voices with violinist Lila Sklar, running through rapidfire torrents of lyrics that more or less traced a seductive narrative that drew the crowd in even as the music turned ominous.
“You are entering the grounds of the Pagan Lounge,” Katz intoned as the brief, uneasy opening circus rock stomp got going. “Are you reveling yet?” The crowd roared their answer back. Tim O’Keefe’s ever-present, eerie vibraphone kicked off the second song, a noir hi-de-ho shuffle. Bassist Justin Katz’s burning bass chords opened the next one, a dark cabaret number. I Found the Gold, the opening track on their latest album, set the lead singer’s sultry vocals to a Bo Diddley beat, which went further into lurid boudoir territory with the song after that as the alto sax player built a red-neon wee-hours ambience. Cellist Beth Vandervennet joined forces with Sklar on a stalking, operatically-tinged tune that ended with a wry Beatles quote. Then they went back to a carnivalesque, Vera Beren-esque sway lit up by a searing Sklar solo, then the psychedelic, Henry Mancini-ish Vegas pop of Dybbuk Dirge. They wound up the set with Zookeeper’s Awakening, an uneasy waltz which was literally a carnival of animals – drunken ones, it seems.
“You look sleepy,” Palmer admonished the audience a bit later on. Behind the carnival of costumes, a considerably more diverse and somewhat older crowd sat, numbed by the tropical heat and humidity. Later on she mused that they seemed like an intellectual audience, and she threw herself into it – literally – to energize them, even going to the extent of tweaking the set list. Though it didn’t work to the extent she wanted, the crowd grew until the Damrosch Park space was packed. Palmer is one of this era’s most important songwriters, partly because she’s such a great tunesmith and lyricist when she wants to be, partly because she has such a sizeable audience and can galvanize them to the extent that she does, whether to push a political agenda or to pay her bills. Behind her, guitarist Chad Raines, bassist Jherek Bischoff and drummer Thor Harris played a theatrical take on four-on-the-floor stadium rock, sometimes evoking Aladdin Sane-era Bowie with hints of the corporate emo that Palmer was associated with before her highly publicized and ultimately triumphant break away from corporate record label hell.
They opened with a brief but towering art-rock overture and then launched into the taunting Do It with a Rockstar, Palmer wasting no time getting down into the audience and working the sarcasatic “I’ll be fine in a minute” mantra for all it was worth. By the time she began The Killing Type, stalking around the front of the stage, arm raised to the cumulo-nimbus skies, she was drenched in sweat, driving home the song’s anti-apathy stance with equal amounts muscle and finesse until she had the crowd singing along. Her former Dresden Dolls partner Brian Viglione – who’s now touring with the Violent Femmes – then took a cameo behind the kit for a savagely creepy version of the noir cabaret hit Missed Me.
From there Palmer bopped through a catchy 80s-pop tune, fought (and then eventually sang along with) the parade of sirens running up Columbus Avenue on the impressionistic glamrock of Astronaut, then switched to ukulele for a handful of tunes; the lighthearted, rap-flavored Map of Tasmania, the wry stream-of-consciousness showbiz culture musings of Gaga Palmer Madonna and then a long number that was more of a chronicle of sadness and personal setbacks than it was a song. By her account, the past year has been a brutally hard one, with death and illness among those close to her and a bad case of writer’s block. If this sad litany manages to jumpstart that part of her game, so much the better.
Palmer pulled herself together and brought the band back for a hard-hitting take of the death-obsessed anthem Lost, the savagely snide, politically-charged Leeds United and then encored with the Ukulele Song. If you don’t know it, it’s sort of this era’s Subterranean Homesick Blues or Anarchy in the UK. By Palmer’s accounting, if Sid Vicious had played uke instead of bass, Nancy would still be alive and he’d be singing sweet songs to her; Lizzie Borden, armed with a uke, would have transcended her Puritan parents’ attempts to crush her creative impulses and wouldn’t have given them 81 whacks; and the whole world would have gotten the point of John Lennon’s Imagine, if it had been recorded on a uke instead of a piano. Palmer messed up her chords right at the point where she was explaining how easy it is to play the uke and made herself laugh, something she’d been doing all night, not something you might expect from an act with such a bleak worldview. That she incorporates that vision into everything she does, even the songs that seem frivolous, makes her worth your time. You may not be in the cult but she’s someone you need to hear. You can get her latest album for free if you don’t have the money; this concert was also streamed at Lincoln Center’s new live video portal, and will be archived sometime in the future. If you want the link, bookmark this page and check back in a week or two.